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Ever-growing volumes of consumer data prompt a reframing of the customer journey

As our world becomes increasingly digital, the applications of the data gleaned from our purchasing decisions can be both rewarding and unsettling.

On the one hand, wearing a Disney MagicBand streamlines and enhances the Disney theme park experience, reducing times spent in lines for fidgety children and offering personalized touches throughout the property. On the other hand, even very few data points can reveal a tremendous amount about an individual. Recently, MIT researchers found that analyzing the details behind just four credit card purchases allowed them to accurately identify 90% of the individuals in a 1.1 million-person dataset.

Each measurable signal—whether through an intentional interaction or a passive touchpoint—contributes to our digital consumer profile, which strongly influences how marketers will appeal to us today and into the future.

Assistant Professor Ana Babic Rosario

“It’s a new, fast-paced business model,” said Daniels Assistant Professor of Marketing Ana Babic Rosario. “Companies and consumers are interacting in a lot more subtle ways, and companies are having to determine how to respond to this wealth of information that we are emitting about ourselves.”

Earlier this year, research on the evolving consumer landscape by Babic Rosario and 11 colleagues was published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science. “How consumer digital signals are reshaping the customer journey” came out of the Choice Symposium—an invitation-only research event—in the spring of 2019 that featured three days of intense in-person collaboration, followed by months of refinement.

The paper takes classic thinking about the customer journey, a concept that crystalized about 60 years ago, and recasts it in today’s always-on, over-sharing, tracking-oriented consumer culture.

“Even in the 1950s and 60s, many consumers could indicate that they had an interest in a product, a need to fulfill, or certain consumption preferences,” said Babic Rosario. “Today, however, some of those consumption journeys look very differently because of technology.”

For example, wearable devices, smart home technology and ubiquitous mobile phones are constantly tracking our every move and potentially many of our behaviors and utterances to create gigabytes of data on each of us. The research article adds that these digital signals may facilitate connections between a company and consumer, such as a seemingly customized text promoting a special offer on baby shoes as a little one nears their second birthday.

In that case, a significant difference between a 1963 visit to a brick and mortar baby apparel store to purchase those shoes and a timely 2022 text from specialty online retailer Ten Little is the proud parent’s willingness to share their digital signal with the latter. As the research notes, consumers regularly reassess their privacy calculus—balancing privacy with marketing benefits such as personalized offers.

“It comes down to how much information the consumers are willing to let out about themselves to reap some rewards before they become uncomfortable,” Babic Rosario said.

Heightened consumer awareness can lead to reduced sharing, as Apple found following a recent change in its iPhone operating system. When the default switched to zero automatic tracking, only 15% of iPhone users opted to restore it.

Such developments complicate matters for companies, which must already determine how they’re going to obtain, analyze, interpret and respond to consumer data. Babic Rosario said opportunities abound, but so do choices between internal and external data collection and analysis resources, as well as a shifting regulatory landscape.

“Marketers constantly have to weigh the privacy/personalization tradeoff to determine whether it’s worth showing the consumer how much they know about them while being mindful that they don’t want to scare the consumer away,” Babic Rosario said. “Ultimately, this tradeoff is about how they remain relevant for the consumer.”

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